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The Peoples, Their Places

The Woodland Cree: Religion and Ceremony 

[Woodland Cree Profiles]

cree woman in front of her fireplace Unlike their prairie counterparts the Plains Cree, the Woodland Cree did not have elaborate ceremonies or a complex society of religious fraternities.  This does not mean that they were not as deeply religious.  It had more to do with isolation.  Vision quests for young males and seclusion for females in the time of their menses were practiced much the same as with other woodland tribes.  They sought supernatural help and propitiated animal spirits as did the Athapaskan groups.  Hunters had medicine bundles to help them in acquiring game.

cree familyThere was a fine line between survival and starvation, and evil spirits could bring bad luck to a hunter. There was the Wittigo (or Windigo), a cannibal monster that had a heart of ice.  This monster could enter the body of a person and cause them to kill and devour their own.  The Pakakos, a skeleton spectre, flew through the air and attacked hunters.

Among the Woodland Cree were sorcerers who had supernatural powers to kill their enemy, make a woman fall in love or drive one insane.  They could also provide protective amulets to people to protect them from the effects of other sorcerers.

The Woodland Cree used plants for a variety of purposes besides food and building materials.  Birch bark was used for syrup and tea as well as for making canoes and baskets.  Black currant, Labrador tea, high bushwild mint cranberry, wild rose, wild mint and yarrow made refreshing teas.  Wild sarsaparilla could heal cuts and wounds; white spruce cones, when chewed, soothed sore throats.  Willow, an all-purpose pain cure, was used for cleansing during religious ceremonies.  Saskatoon berries and chokecherries were an important ingredient in the making of pemmican, and the branches of saskatoons were made into arrow shafts and pipestems.  Sphagnum moss made the ideal disposable diaper, and northern bedstraw roots mixed with cranberries made a red dye.  Kinnikinnik (bear berry) and red osier dogwood were used as tobacco.  Modern medicine has not altogether replaced these traditional plants, which are still used for food, medicine and religious purposes.

Many Woodland Cree succumbed to European diseases.  In 1780, they were devastated by an epidemic of smallpox.  This favoured the Beaver in their battles with the Cree as much as the acquisition of firearms in 1782.  In later years, tuberculosis, measles and influenza had depleted their numbers.  As devastating as white man's diseases were to the Cree, so was the introduction of liquor to the fur trade, resulting in a high mortality rate for those addicted to it.

By the mid-1800s, missionaries like Robert Rundle, Father Lacombe, Henry Steinhauer and Bishop Bompas were visiting the Woodland Cree at important gathering places, at Fort Vermilion, Lac Ste. Anne, Whitefish Lake, Lac La Biche, and Lesser Slave Lake.  One Methodist missionary, James Evans had invented Cree syllabics in 1841.  This written language spread throughout the north, so that by the turn of the century the Cree had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.  Christianity had a strong influence on the Cree, who adapted many aspects to their own belief system.

Reprinted from "A Sense of the Peace," by Roberta Hursey with permission of the Spirit of the Peace Museums Association and the author.